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The importance of ‘Form’ in my writing

Of all the main elements that make up a piece of classical music, melody, harmony, rhythm, etc, I am inclined to say that for me, the most important is form, the overall plan. It has a greater importance because it gives so much to what we are experiencing on the journey through a work, and what we are left with after listening, the impression, the after-feeling.

However, to get to that emotion after a work has completed, whether it is sadness or joy, contemplation or exhilaration, it isn’t of course just dependent on those last couple of minutes, those last few bars, it is the grand scheme. But once that decision on a period in a work has been made, ending or elsewhere, then I find that the other musical elements follow to create that impression. It is for that reason that the quality of my first draft is so poor, frightening if someone was to think that was what I had intended, but through the many edits and revisions, some fifteen in all, the piece gradually rights itself, or perhaps I should say, writes itself. Hence my feeling that form is the most important element for me.

In the work for piano that has just been released on CD, Preludes In Our Time, I decided - I don’t know why - to have a series of preludes which doubled in length, from approximately one minute for the first, 16 minutes for the last. But with the last I decided that half-way through I would start a recapitulation of the previous preludes, starting with the fifth, the one I was actually in the middle of, and then working back, so that it ends with a recapitulation of the first, the one that lasted just one minute.

I found that this was a good structure to work with, and the length of the piece then began to characterise the prelude, so that, for example, the more contemplative fourth prelude, by lasting approximately eight minutes, had the time to fulfil itself, but the effect of it was also dependent on the energy and momentum of the previous three preludes. In other words, by the time I arrived at the fourth prelude, it was the right moment to give the collection time for a peaceful period. Equally, the grandest of the preludes, the fifth and final one, then needed an overall feel of energy, excitement, and finally, closure, which was achieved by that final recapitulation.

Very often, pieces are prepared in advance, and these had been drafted a couple of years before a full revision and progress to performance and recording. So I find it helpful to return to a piece after time - in fact for many different reasons, not least that one is writing with more experience and understanding. Sometimes I am surprised by the piece, for good or bad - in the last prelude I was taken back by a rather angry moment and it took some time to recall why I had written it. Then I remembered, I had made a funding application for a different project. This was rejected but in the feedback the administrator seemed to change his mind and advised me to make one or two minor changes, saying that they would fast track the re-application. They did fast track it, the rejection came back much quicker. I wrote that section of the work that morning, perhaps he would be pleased to know that he made an artistic input.


But still on form, it would be appropriate to mention another work, L’Ora di Barga, which was written to mark a concert of my work in Italy, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Giovanni Pascoli, who wrote the poem. I was aware of form issues when writing, as well as other musical ones, and after the premiere, not being satisfied, I made one important decision/revision. The problem arose from arguably the most important line, Tu dici, E l’ora, tu dici, E tardi. This was because I had interpreted the phrase with a double meaning, in the simplest it is a comment on the lateness of the day, a comment on the bells ringing towards the lateness of the hour. But for me the comment was also about the approaching lateness of a life, whether it was Pascoli’s or life in general. The latter interpretation was the powerful moment of the poem, and thus the climax of the piece - not at the end I should add. However, until I reluctantly cut the poem in the revision did this fall in the right place, have the momentum to reach it, and afterwards, the right amount of time to close the work as a piece of music.


So this is just two examples of the importance of form in my work, and I will return to it again as it plays such an major role. Foremost is the opera, Jesse Owens, where form and momentum is crucial over a two hour work, and a four stage work based on the life of Charles Darwin, where ‘evolution’ was fundamental. (already recorded by the Philharmonia and out on double CD in 2017).

Extract from Preludes In Our Time: No.5, Lively

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